Northerny: Growing Up in Canada’s Yukon

Guest post by Dawn Macdonald

My father died two weeks after my book, Northerny, came out. He’d had it in his hands but I don’t think he got to the end. He may have flipped to the acknowledgments at the back, where I thank my parents “for putting me in the situation that resulted in me being the person who would write this book”—backhanded, I know. I love my parents and I respect their choices, their path of adventure, but for their kid it’s been a pretty mixed experience.

Late last year my mom was reminiscing about the day she and my dad first arrived in the Yukon from Phoenix, Arizona, back in 1974.

“It was so exciting,” she recalled, “like going back in time a hundred years.”

“So,” I thought, “you raised me in the 1880s, and then I had to figure out how to get by in the 21st century. It’s been a bit of a struggle.”

This is a story from the 1970s but it still plays out in various ways today. The Southern transplant comes North, thrilled to see the Northern Lights and to have an adventure on the land, often with a job in hand thanks to their credentials and “down South” experience. Northern kids, by contrast, are not on an adventure. We have to make our way in a world of education and employment where we often lack the fundamental tools of socialization and belonging. (Nothing says “weirdo” like not being sure how a telephone works, or how to order a pizza).

Most of these folks are lovely people, and their stories are important and valid. They’re just different from the stories of the kids who grew up here.

Northerny, my debut poetry collection from University of Alberta Press, takes a hard look at that Yukon childhood—the people, the land, and the relationships with both. I grew up outside of Whitehorse in a log cabin without electricity or running water. We had an outhouse, which comes up in a couple of the poems in Northerny. We had chickens, which also come up, along with angora rabbits, and a couple of green-broke horses that ranged out in the fields. There was a radio phone for communication. 

When I had a chance to go away to university on scholarship, I studied physics, because I figured I had one shot at this school thing, and physics would be the hardest to learn on my own. As a summer student in the Space Physics department at Western University, I wrote computer programs to model ionospheric processes driving the Northern Lights. My supervisor had spent his career on this but, living in Québec and Ontario, he had never actually seen the aurora.

As a student in London, Ontario, I used to tell people the “wood-burning television story,” which goes like this: “When I was a kid we were the most popular family in town because we had a wood-burning television. After school all the kids would come over on the dogsled with a stick of wood for the TV.”

People totally believed this story. The irony is that we didn’t live in town, I wasn’t especially popular, and the television ran on a set of 12-volt batteries for just about long enough to watch an episode of Three’s Company. There’s the real North, and there’s the story of the North. I aim to tell the story of the story of the North—what is it like to live inside a Canadian myth? Who are we if our stories are subsumed inside a framework built by Jack London, Robert Service, and the Yukon Department of Tourism and Culture?

I wish I could have talked about the book with my father. In the short time since his passing I’ve been thinking a lot about his crazy, adventurous life—trapper, auto mechanic, biker, bush philosopher, jack of all trades, no stranger to danger. I know I pushed back on that lifestyle in my writing. I’m a town-dweller now, never going to live out there again. But I want everyone to know—there is beauty in that mess. There was a lot to love.